With the NFL’s longest work stoppage in league history in the rear view mirror, the Green Bay Packers will begin their 2011 training camp on Saturday, July 30th in De Pere, Wisconsin. It will be the first step in the Packers Super Bowl title defense, and like most training camps, it should provide a framework for how the organization’s roster will look heading into the 2011 season.
But it will also be home to several intriguing and important positional battles that will determine who starts and who rides the bench to open the year. Let’s go in-depth to breakdown some of the Packers best battles to watch during training camp.
This will be the one everyone watches. 28-year-old Ryan Grant is returning from a season-ending ankle injury, and as the leading man to start each of the last three seasons, Grant still believes he is going to be the primary carrier. Grant claims the ankle is 100%, which is more then conceivable considering he believed he could have played in the Super Bowl if not on IR. He’s also the most experienced and accomplished back on the roster, as Grant rushed for over 3,400 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2007 to ’09.
When Grant’s 2010 season ended just eight carries in, the Packers running game floundered in his absence. Grant’s vision and one-cut and go mentality were sorely missed. Neither Brandon Jackson or John Kuhn were able to handle the No. 1 role, and the Packers running game was nearly non-existent. That is, of course, until 2010 sixth rounder James Starks took control of the position late in the season.
Starks rushed for 73 yards on 18 carries in his NFL debut against the 49ers, marking only the second time to that point that a Packers rusher went over 70 yards in a game. Starks then mostly disappeared for the remaining of the regular season, but reemerged for the playoffs and took the postseason by storm. His 123 yards against the Eagles in the Wild Card was a Packers rookie playoff record and arguably the team’s best rushing performance of the 2010 season. He rushed for just 66 and 74 yards in the following two games in Atlanta and Chicago, respectively, but Starks provided the kind of offensive balance the Packers needed.
Despite missing nearly two years of football, Starks proved he was a tough runner who excels inside the tackles but can also push the edge. He’s got plenty of potential and is likely the future, but Grant will be a tough guy to beat out.
And while we’re at it, don’t forget about third round pick Alex Green. The Packers picked him high for a reason and he could be given a chance if he looks good in camp. I still think it will ultimately come down to Grant or Starks, but don’t expect this to be ironed out in camp. The running back dynamic will be something to watch all season.
NO. 2 RECEIVER
With the way the Packers play offense, the No. 2 receiver might not be the most important battle. The Packers top four receivers all caught more than 40 passes last season, and the difference between the incumbent No. 2, Donald Driver, and Jordy Nelson was only six regular season catches.
However, that number could be significant greater this season depending on who takes control of the starting spot opposite Greg Jennings. Driver battled injuries in 2010 and put together his worst season statistically since 2001 with 51 catches for 565 yards and four touchdowns. He’s slowing down at age 36 and no one can blame him for that.
But with Driver on the decline—and I hesitate to even call it that—it’s time for Nelson to take on a bigger role in the offense. He posted career highs in almost every category last season, and Nelson’s 21 receptions and two touchdowns in the playoffs both tied for team leads. He also had the finest game of his career in the Super Bowl, catching nine passes for 140 yards and the opening touchdown. Despite his four drops in that game, Nelson had burst onto the national scene and should be in line for an increased role. He has sneaky straight-line speed and has gotten better in-and-out of his breaks since his rookie season.
Beating out Driver, who is a fan favorite and a veteran leader, won’t be an easy task, but it’s time Nelson established himself as the Packers go-to receiver after Jennings. If not now, when? Training camp should give us a better idea of where Nelson stands.
The Packers safety position opposite Nick Collins has been a revolving door, featuring names such as Marquand Manuel, Atari Bigby, and Aaron Rouse since Collins was drafted in 2006. GM Ted Thompson took Morgan Burnett in the third round in 2010, and many thought it’d be his position for the foreseeable future. That plan looked like it was coming to fruition, as Burnett started the first four games and generally played well for a rookie.
But Burnett tore up his ACL midway through Week 4, and the revolving door at safety took another swing. The door swung the way of Charlie Peprah, a 28-year-old journeyman who had been spent time in both Green Bay and Atlanta before being re-signed prior to the season. Peprah took firm control over the position, providing a steady presence at the back of the defense and a sure-tackler across the field. To the latter point, Peprah had the best pass tackle stop rate of any safety in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. While Peprah doesn’t have ideal size, speed or athleticism, he’s earned a spot on this team through his intelligence and film study. He gave up just one touchdown pass (at Washington) and was a leading tackler in both the regular season and postseason.
The Packers gave Peprah a two-year deal at the end of the season. Still, he’ll have to work for every minute of playing time moving forward. The coaching staff was high on Burnett before his injury and still wants him to be the safety of the future. He’s a better athlete overall than Peprah, and you’d have to think Burnett could provide more big plays considering his ball-hawking reputation.
Training camp will be important for both, as Peprah needs to fight for his starting spot and Burnett needs to prove his knee is 100%. And who knows how the lockout has effected Burnett’s development. He could have used the offseason to further his knowledge of the defense and test his knee in front of coaches. Save for running back, this will be the battle I watch the closest.
The lockout has been the least friendly to the Packers potential starting outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews. Thompson has done little to drastically improve the position from the outside, adding just Ricky Elmore in the draft to what the Packers had previously. This equates to the Packers holding a lot of trust in players already on the roster. That includes, but is not limited to, Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones.
Zombo played the most of three in 2010 and ranked fourth on the team in sacks (five), and steadily improved his pass rushing as the season went on. He still doesn’t hold up well at the point of attack and is limited athletically. Zombo could have used an offseason with Kevin Greene to improve, but will likely be the front runner.
Chasing him will Walden and Jones, who each have had their own flashes of brilliance. Walden, who was brought in off the street after several injuries, produced 3.5 sacks in six starts late in the season and appeared to have the most athletic ability of any option. His explosiveness of the edge and ability to hold up in coverage might give him the highest ceiling of the three, but, like Zombo, he missed out on valuable time picking Greene’s brain.
Jones is a former seventh round draft pick who used his knowledge of the 3-4 defense to his advantage early in his career. He tallied four sacks after taking control of the position in ’09 and held the starting job mostly be default last season. Before his season-ending shoulder injury, however, Jones was ineffective and didn’t register a sack. There has been mumblings of Jones possibly moving inside as the depth chart dictates, which could make this a two-man race.
Zombo is the favorite heading into camp, but I think Walden has the kind of ability that can change games opposite of Matthews. And don’t count out Elmore, who was the Pac-10’s sack champ the past two seasons and should be given a shot.
There is a sense of panic to replace likely free agent departure Cullen Jenkins, but that might be a tad overblown. Jenkins is as good a 3-4 defensive end as there is, and his ability to rush the passer from the five-technique is a rare quality. But the Packers have good players behind him.
Second year player Mike Neal might be the best candidate for a breakout season on the Packers defense. Before his shoulder injury that required surgery, Neal showed flashes of being a dominant player. He terrorized offensive lineman in the preseason, displaying the kind of pass rushing skills that we became accustomed to from Jenkins. Even once the real games started, Neal continued to show why the Packers took him so high the previous April. He registered a sack and a handful of hurries, plus a forced fumble, in limited playing time. Following the Washington game, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was complimentary of the Packers defensive line and Neal was a significant reason for that. I have no reservations saying Neal could bring all the things that Jenkins brought to the Packers’ defensive table, but he needs to stay healthy and continue to make the progressions we saw from him early on.
That kind of profile would seem like an open and shut case for a starter, but Neal will have plenty of competition. Howard Green should be one, and the 360-pound (rough guess now) behemoth played plenty of snaps for the Packers after Thompson brought him in prior their Week 8 contest in New York. He mostly played at end, but Green also saw time inside when the Packers went to a 4-4 package. Like you’d expect, Green’s wide body took on blockers and freed up space for the Packers linebackers to play near the line of scrimmage without offensive linemen getting to the second level. That’s exactly what you want from the position. But Green also flashed some ability to rush the passer, as evidenced by his disruption in the Super Bowl that allowed Collins to easily interception a Ben Roethlisberger duck and return it for a touchdown. Yet I could potentially see Green coming to camp overweight and out of shape, which could hurt his chances of making the team. If he gets in shape and makes this team, he’ll have a decent shot at starting Week 1.
The darkhorse of the group is C.J. Wilson, a seventh-round pick in 2010 who worked his tail off and earned his spot in the defensive line rotation. He put on nearly 10 pounds over the course of the season and never seemed overwhelmed by any situation. Wilson admitted to Kareem Copeland that the lockout has robbed him of work with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, but with a good camp, he’ll win more playing time.
This will all be dependent on the Packers decision regarding incumbent starter Daryn Colledge. If he’s re-signed, this is no longer a battle—Colledge will be the starter for the sixth consecutive season. But many around the organization have a strong feeling that Colledge won’t be back, and that means the Packers should have an interesting battle to replace him.
T.J. Lang is the natural first option, as he was Colledge’s backup for the majority of last season and seems to warrant the opportunity. But Lang was far from impressive in his limited playing time in 2010, struggling at tackle in Minnesota and being completely overmatched against Ndamukong Suh and company in Detroit during the regular season. He also briefly played in the NFC Championship Game in Chicago and didn’t look confident against Julius Peppers. As a result, quarterback Aaron Rodgers took a big hit from Peppers under the chin. Lang needs to make a big jump in year three to hold down a starting spot.
Hot on his tail is Nick McDonald, an undrafted free agent pickup last year who the coaches absolutely loved. He’s big and strong, but he needed a year to get comfortable in the NFL coming from small school Grand Valley State. The lack of an offseason hurt his chances, but a good camp could make the Packers decision at left guard an interesting one.
If neither work out, however, the Packers have another possibility. Bryan Bulaga has the makeup to move inside, and while it would risk his development at tackle, it could allow for the Packers best five linemen to be on the field at once. 2011 first rounder Derek Sherrod would then take over at right tackle, while being groomed to eventually move over to left tackle when Chad Clifton’s career ends. It’s a risky scenario for Bulaga’s long-term future, but the Packers can’t take any chances along the offensive line. This is obviously a Super Bowl-caliber team, but not one that is immune to the downfalls that a shaky offensive line can create.
Tight End: The Packers currently have six roster-quality tight ends in Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, D.J. Williams, Ryan Taylor and Spencer Havner. Obviously they can’t keep all six. Finley is a guarantee, and you’d think Quarless and Williams have the kind of upside that should give them a really good shot. Crabtree had a good 2010, playing more snaps than anyone could have ever imagined. Taylor is a 2011 seventh-rounder, but appears to have good value on special teams. Havner was an important cog in ’09, but was released during final cuts last season and then got injured upon his return. The Packers have plenty of talent at the position, but one, and possibly two, of these players won’t make the team.
No. 5 receiver: If James Jones is retained, Brett Swain won’t likely make the team. But there aren’t many who expect Jones to return, which should give Swain a decent shot at making the team. The Packers will likely bring in an undrafted free agent or two at the position, and Chastin West could give Swain a run for his money. Still, Swain has a year as the No. 5 under his belt and was an important part of the special teams unit.
Third down back: If the Packers bring back Brandon Jackson, it’s his job. He’s shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (almost 100 catches over the past three season) and is the best pass blocker in the Packers backfield. The latter is a trait that is indispensable for the Packers offense. But Jackson is a free agent, and he might leave Green Bay for greener pastures and a better opportunity. That could leave the third down back up to either rookie Alex Green or fellow free agent John Kuhn. Green excelled in a similar role at Hawaii, and Kuhn can block and catch effectively enough.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2